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IMGCA Article - The Mental Game of Tennis


Mental Game Secrets Of Winners

How To Adjust and Know Why You're Winning

Bill Cole, MS, MA

This article continues a discussion of the seven major sports winning strategies. The first three were discussed in the article Mental Game Secrets Of Winners: Don't Beat Yourself, Play Within Yourself and Play the Percentages. This article looks at #4: Adjust To Conditions, The Opponent and Yourself and #5: Know Why You're Winning.

#4: Adjust To Conditions, The Opponent and Yourself

A tennis match is not played in a vacuum. The opponent may change tactics, the wind may begin to blow, the sun may come out, you may become tired, one or more of your shots may stop working and suddenly, how the match started is not what the match has become. Notice what is happening around you and within yourself. Take time to listen, notice, observe, sense and learn what is different about the match. Do this between points as a matter of habit. If you take your time, these things will present themselves to you. Players who rush through a match are oblivious to subtle changes and fail to adjust to these new conditions. These conditions demand to be noticed. Those who observe these changes and adjust to them will be rewarded with victory.

Realize that your performance in all contests have peaks and valleys. Nothing works all the time under all conditions. That power serve that was working a few minutes ago now is useless as it screams into the net. Give it up for a while and just get your serve in to stay alive in the point. It is rare that a tennis pro has every single stroke, shot and tactic working at optimal levels through a match from start to finish. Some days certain shots are not even working for them at all. The pro adjusts or forgets those non-working shots and finds another way to win. Under such difficult circumstances this can make the win all the more satisfying. So, don't expect to have all your tools working well at the same moment. This is a rare event, for any competitor. Tennis is not a game of perfect. It's a game of reality.

Learn how to win when you are NOT playing well and you will become a very tough competitor. The person who continually adjusts, wins. Go into every match looking for the variances of performance and make allowances for them. This makes competing more interesting and challenging. The matches you will remember for years to come are the ones played under the most trying circumstances, win, lose or draw. Adjust continually.

#5: Know Why You're Winning

A major strategic task in sport is to place your strengths into the opponent's weaknesses. You have to know which is which on a moment-to-moment basis, as they change. If you have tunnel vision, and bury your head as you plow through the match, these tactical opportunities will be lost. To honor the long-standing winning truth "Rarely change a winning game, but always change a losing game", you need to be aware of the exact reasons you are winning. Just giving the reason "I'm playing well, and that's why I'm winning." is not detailed or helpful enough. You need to know why you are winning so you don't accidentally change your course of action. How can you purposely continue a winning tactic if you don't know what it is?

Knowing why you are winning is one of the most difficult skills to learn in sport. To become good at it, you have to think like a detective. You have to observe cause and effect in the game and determine why you are winning due to a specific reason, not a general one- ("I'm winning because they are playing bad" is a useless thought). Why is this important? If you believe, for example, that you are currently winning because you are being aggressive and rushing the net at every opportunity, yet in reality are actually winning because you are playing steadier than the opponent, you may make a fatal mistake. You may decide to become even more aggressive. Or, you may not maintain your actual steadiness. In either case, since you are less steady, your "reason for winning" is now gone. You were laboring under the illusion that aggression was winning for you. It was not. Steadiness was doing the trick. Now you have changed your winning game and violated the cardinal rule of championship competition, Don't Change A Winning Game.

To notice why you are winning, keep track of how you win individual points. Are you hitting winners or unreturnable shots? Are you just being steady and letting the opponent miss? Are you running them around? Are you making them play shots they don't like? Are you making them play pressure shots? Are you making them play low percentage shots? Are you rushing them? Whatever the reason, your task is to find the reason or reasons you are winning and continue those tactics. Observe, notice, listen to what the opponent is saying because they might inadvertently tell you ("I hate those shots deep to my backhand!"), ask your doubles partner, your coach or anyone who watches your matches. It is extremely difficult to "watch yourself" play during a match to determine why you are winning. Take your time between points to replay the points mentally and use the time after the match to reflect on how you "got" your points.

Be Observant And Wise

Continually observe conditions. Set realistic expectations. Adjust. Be a detective. Always change a losing game. Rarely change a winning game. Know why you're winning.

Copyright © Bill Cole, MS, MA 2000-2010 All rights reserved.

This article covers only one small part of the mental game. A complete mental training program includes motivation and goal-setting, pre-event mental preparation, post-event review and analysis, mental strengthening, self-regulation training, breath control training, motor skill training, mental rehearsal, concentration training, pressure-proofing, communication training, confidence-building, breaking through mental barriers, slump prevention, mental toughness training, flow training, relaxation training, momentum training, psych-out proofing and media training.

For a comprehensive overview of your mental abilities you need an assessment instrument that identifies your complete mental strengths and weaknesses. For a free, easy-to-take 65-item sport psychology assessment tool you can score right on the spot, visit This assessment gives you a quick snapshot of your strengths and weaknesses in your mental game. You can use this as a guide in creating your own mental training program, or as the basis for a program you undertake with Bill Cole, MS, MA to improve your mental game. This assessment would be an excellent first step to help you get the big picture about your mental game.

Bill Cole, MS, MA, a leading authority on peak performance, mental toughness and coaching, is founder and President of the International Mental Game Coaching Association, Bill is also founder and CEO of William B. Cole Consultants, a consulting firm that helps organizations and professionals achieve more success in business, life and sports. He is a multiple Hall of Fame honoree, an award-winning scholar-athlete, published book author and articles author, and has coached at the highest levels of major-league pro sports, big-time college athletics and corporate America. For a free, extensive article archive, or for questions and comments visit him at

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